Theaters eagerly await COVID-19’s curtain call

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 30th of April, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: the performing arts.

Theaters and concert halls seat thousands of people. They were some of the first venues to close as the coronavirus began to spread. 

And they’ll likely be among the last to re-open.

BASHAM: That’s creating serious financial hardships for performing artists and the studios and companies that pay them. 

Across the country, two-thirds of performing artists are out of work. 

WORLD’s Anna Johansen reports now on how some are trying to adapt.

JULIANNA RUBIO SLAGER: I think we were all just in a state of shock. 

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Julianna Rubio Slager is the director and choreographer of Ballet 5:8, a Christian dance company based in the Chicago area. On March 19th, the group was just about to launch its spring tour. And then COVID-19 shut everything down.

RUBIO SLAGER: I think as soon as we recognized where things were headed, we felt very strongly, like OK, we need to try to get as much of our work on film as we possibly can.

They turned the dance studio into a black box theater, grabbed a couple of iPhones, and spent the next three days filming.

Ballet 5:8 isn’t the only group having to adjust.

REBA HERVAS: I think we understand that we, that we’re just part of the casualty but we’re not the only casualty.

Reba Hervas runs a Christian theater company called Overshadowed Theatrical Productions. Right now, she’s scrambling to reschedule the rest of the shows she had planned for this year. Because you can’t just perform a show whenever you want. You have to get permission to do that specific show at that specific time. That means getting in touch with the company that owns the rights to the show, which, these days, is a little difficult.

HERVAS: Because you have to remember that I’m just one little theater company, and there are hundreds of thousands of people all over the United States who had a summer planned and so they’re all asking can we move our dates can we move our dates can we move our dates.

Hervas is also trying to figure out what to do with already-sold tickets. She thought most people would ask for their money back right away, but that hasn’t happened.

HERVAS: They all seemed to be for the most part pretty content with the idea that as long as we eventually have the play, that they understand that and they’ll wait until we have it which is also a huge blessing.

Because of that, some really dedicated donors, and low operating costs, Hervas says the company is doing OK financially. That’s not the case for everyone in the arts.

ALYSSA TONG: I’m a member of two professional orchestras in the area, and I was subbing with another one.

Alyssa Tong is a violinist. She usually gets paid about $275 for a week of rehearsing and performing. With all performances canceled, that’s a lot of lost income.

TONG: I actually am directing an online summer program camp festival for string musicians. That’s hopefully gonna put me back in the black.

You can teach a class online … but you can’t move an entire orchestra online. Being physically close together is crucial. You can’t even have a socially distanced orchestra with musicians playing 6 feet apart.

TONG: Just physics, literally the physics of it is a little bit different and the time that it takes for sound to travel father. 

In an orchestra, the winds sit in the back and the strings in front. The winds are taught to play slightly ahead of the strings. 

TONG: So that by the time the sound hits the audience, it sounds together. And I think that would be magnified if an orchestra were to sit far apart from each other and play like that.

Artists of all kinds are looking for ways to adapt. The dancers at Ballet 5:8 had to figure out how to do ballet for film.

LAURA WILLIS: We’ve done season promotional videos and those have been fun, but again, they were more like video projects, not like, “Let’s film an hour long ballet.”

Laura Willis is a company dancer at Ballet 5:8. She says filming was hard: They did the piece four or five times, getting close ups, wide angles, facials, detail shots.

WILLIS: And there was sometimes where we would be on the third take. And I’d just look at the guy next to me and say, Don’t mess up. I don’t wanna do this part again, this has to be perfect. 

Julianna Rubio Slager says she’s grateful for technology, but she’ll be happy when she and her dancers can get back in a theater.

RUBIO SLAGER: I think I can speak almost unilaterally for performing arts. We would rather be in a theater. That’s our home and that’s where we thrive. 

But she’s starting to realize that the main goal can’t be just getting back on stage.

RUBIO SLAGER: I think at this moment in time, the art community really has to let go of that for the present moment and recognize that our job right now as artists is to bring healing and hope, peace, and a look past circumstance.

Reba Hervas says the arts are more important now than ever before. And she believes live theater will come back some day.

HERVAS: I think people need theater. I think it makes us forget, I think it makes us laugh, I think it inspires us, and I think it’s necessary. So I think in some way or another, it’s gonna come back. I just don’t know when, and I don’t know how.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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